Kids whine for a variety of reasons – from boredom to anger. While it can be frustrating for parents, whining is actually a way for kids to communicate their needs and feelings. In order to stop your child from whining, you first need to understand why they’re doing it. Here are some tips to understand why kids whine and how to stop it.
Why Kids Whine?
Kids whine because it works. It’s a learned behaviour. Whining gives children “power” because it gets the parent’s attention. Unfortunately, whining often results in us acquiescing or stretching our boundaries.
When we allow whining behaviour to work, kids learn that there is a chance that whining more will deliver them the results they want. Therefore, instinctively, they’ll be more likely to fall back on that behaviour in the future to get their needs met.
Here are 5 science-based reasons why kids whine, what they are trying to accomplish with it, and how to stop it.
1. They need your help or resources
One of the main reason’s kids whine is because they are exhausted and need your help. Your kids are telling you, “I can’t act big boy anymore, please take care of me like I was a baby.”
When kids get stressed, hungry, thirsty, tired, or overwhelmed — often by a change in routine — their sweet natural voices get replaced by high-pitched, need-it-now tones. They may require immediate resources — a nap, some water or milk, a snack, a rest.
Solution: When a child whines, ask yourself, “Is this child tired, hungry, thirsty, stressed, or overwhelmed?” “Are we packing too much in our day?” “Did they go to bed late last night?” “Is an emotional issue (such as change in family situation or trouble with a friend) weighing on them?” “Are they sick or in pain?” Then, calmly model a gentler way to ask for things like, “May I please have some water?” while reminding yourself that a whine is “an urgent request for a resource or comfort.”
2. They need more connection or positivity
Sometimes whining is a signal that a child needs more connection. They may need some focused one-on-one time with their parents, such as reading, cooking a meal, or playing together. John Gottman’s research indicates that kids may also need parents to “turn toward” them more often when expressing a “bid” for emotional connection. For example, when a child says, “Will you play with me?” a parent can “turn toward” the child by saying, “Yes, let’s play! I love playing with you!” and make time for it.
A hostile or conflictual family environment can cause children to whine more.
Solution: Pay attention to your stress level, emotionality, amount of quality time spent with them, and overall family environment. Build in a bit more time for connection.
3. They need to express their feelings
Whining is a way for children to express sadness or disappointment. The best way to support your child when they are experiencing big feelings is to “accept, acknowledge, and support” their feelings instead of “correcting, scolding, or controlling” them.
Solution: Remind yourself that whining can be a normal expression of human feelings, which are always best met with kindness. If it’s uncomfortable for you to hear kids whine, breathe in slowly for 5 seconds and then breathe out for 5 seconds to calm yourself. Remember the times when you felt frustrated, sad or disappointed and needed a shoulder to cry.
4. They have a sensitive or aggressive temperament
All children differ by temperament. There are typically three temperament types (easy or flexible; active or aggressive; and slow to warm or cautious).
Solution: Remind yourself that some children are born with a tendency to have more intense reactions, a stronger will, more anxiety, or a more challenging time coping with new or changing experiences. While you can teach them better ways to ask for or cope with things, it will be a process.
5. They are responding to variable reinforcement
Skinner found that people will repeat a behaviour for the longest time with variable-ratio reinforcement (e.g., giving in once in a while, but not all the time). For example, if you give in to a child whining once in a while for ice cream after dinner, they will likely continue to whine for ice cream for a long time afterwards to get the same reward.
Solution: Avoid reinforcing whining by being consistent and not giving in “once in a while” when kids plead for things like extra time on a video game, a toy in the store, or a late bedtime. Caving stops whining in the moment but reinforces it for the long term.
If you DO change your mind and decide to negotiate, make sure you only do it when they’re using their normal (not whining) voice. Make it clear the request is negotiable, so they respect when you say something is non-negotiable and explain your thought process: “That is a good argument, and I’m going to think about it for a few minutes.”
Bringing acceptance, understanding, and gentleness to whining is no easy task, but it’s a great way to build an even stronger bond with kids. Gottman suggests that by giving a positive, loving response when a child is whining, you are filling their “Emotional Bank Account” and strengthening your connection — and the stronger your connection, the less likely the child is to whine in the future.
Resource: My Changing Family Journal